These days, when everything seems chaotic and out of our control, it can be satisfying to set reality aside and immerse ourselves in deviously intricate mechanical puzzle solving. Blue Brain Games once again delivers on this desire in their second deep dive into the The House of Da Vinci. The sequel to the 2017 first-person puzzler sees players leave the confining boundaries of Leonardo’s workshop and tour locations in several cities around Renaissance Italy in the service of solving a larger puzzle involving secret societies and a mysterious contraption that da Vinci is working on. Supporting, rather than artificially gating, the mystery is a wonderful array of logic puzzles that, for the most part, have a lovely flow, slowly building in complexity and beauty.
In the opening cutscene, an angelic woman’s voice smoothly sings as a camera swoops over an old map showing that you are in 1495 Ferrara, a city in northern Italy. But this is no picturesque travelogue, as a short tutorial introduces you to the character you will play, Giacomo, someone who has unfortunately been accused of witchcraft and has been left to molder away in a decrepit jail cell. The echoing clicks of a guard’s boots above your cell and the slow plip plip of dripping water awaken you to your situation, and you must figure out how to escape.
The House of Da Vinci 2 is conducted in first-person viewing mode, and you’ll use your mouse to click on items to investigate or use them, as well as to move from node to node through the environment. Travel around corners, and the camera swings with you. The camera movements add great dynamism to the presentation, swinging and swirling around mechanical objects as they open up and expand, or swooping over great heights (hopefully, you don’t suffer from vertigo) as you zipline from a balcony across a courtyard, wheeee! You can also control your camera view from where you stand, clicking and dragging as in the first game to look up, down, and around. You’ll use mouse motions to push doors open, lift up wooden lids, or spin wheels around. One challenge is that it’s not always easy to tell where you can double-click to enter or leave an area, so finding yourself at an impasse may just mean you haven’t found the right entrance or exit.
Or, it may mean you have to break out the good old Oculus Perpetua. Making its encore appearance here is a magical tool that da Vinci created to help you travel back and forth between two points in time. This unique lens, which appears as a clickable golden orb icon, opens up a portal into the past in the same area you’re currently located. If you’re stuck, click on the tool and you’ll travel back in time, when a bridge may be repaired where you couldn’t previously move forward or where rushing water is no longer flowing and blocking your way. The past is frozen in place, so you’ll encounter strange sights like birds just about to take off into flight, or you might catch your breath as you encounter a series of figures that look like they’re just about to turn and catch you in a forbidden room. It also means that some areas contain twice the beauty, as one summertime locale gives way to the same scene draped in winter snow.
You’ll also acquire a limited inventory that never contains too many items at one time. However, you may have to locate other things that will complete them before they can be used. It’s important to inspect all of your inventory objects thoroughly, as many will have hidden contraptions that you’ll only find on the opposite side of the object. Some of the object rotations take some getting used to, as I found that swiping my mouse up or down would sometimes over or under spin the item, forcing me to repeat the motion and refining how much I flicked my wrist.
Helping Giacomo escape his cell might seem too easy, because it is, as you soon receive a letter and discover that you’ve received help from an anonymous benefactor. However, your helper hasn’t aided your escape without any strings attached. He seems to be a very powerful person who needs your services in getting close to da Vinci to spy on him, just a little bit, and you don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. Actually getting close to Leonardo, however, means passing a series of tests to prove your intelligence and usefulness. Your first trial will be to make it through an intricate labyrinth; if you can solve that, you’ll get to meet da Vinci and enter his tutelage, where of course there will be more puzzles for you to solve.
There is a small bit of serviceable voice acting in the game (though the character you play never speaks), with your mysterious benefactor sporting a curious and unidentifiable accent. The actor for Leonardo da Vinci does a nice job, charmingly conveying his irritation as you interrupt him during one of his small paintings—you know, that little doodle, The Last Supper. And a variety of mechanical squeaks, creaks, and groans fill the air as you pull on levers, watch gears slowly turn, or manipulate a variety of contraptions. As you get to the end of each chapter, you’ll start to hear music slowly swell, with deep bass tones and stringed instruments starting up as you solve the final puzzle of an area.
If you hate mazes, have no fear, as da Vinci’s first test isn’t actually solving the labyrinth, but rather the many detailed mechanical doodads and locks that litter it. For example, doors are never just doors; instead they always contain elaborately styled locks that you’ll have to puzzle your way through. And locks don’t just involve you looking for keys, although you’ll do a fair bit of searching for those. Solving the labyrinth will depend on you searching your environs for any sign of something out of the ordinary. Check every tiny ornament or screw or nail that seems differently worn or slightly out of place. And make sure to avail yourself of the range of camera views, as a clue could be on the floor or even on the ceiling. Explore every nook and cranny for such anomalies, as they’re usually an indication that you need to interact with that item or area to progress or uncover another puzzle.
At times this can be quite a challenge if you encounter, say, twenty bookshelf ornaments that all look the same at first glance. Luckily, as with the first game, there’s a layered hint system that slowly reveals tips for progressing; if one is not enough, simply wait for the cooldown timer to complete and the next level hint becomes available. There is no ability to skip any puzzles completely, but it seems that in most cases the final layer of hints will give you 90% of the solution. Generally, this was just the right amount for me. Often I didn’t need any help at all, as observing patterns, taking good notes, and using your Oculus Perpetua to sometimes see hidden mechanisms was usually all it took to solve a puzzle. For those times where I was stuck or wasn’t sure where to even start in a new area, the hints were a welcome nudge in the right direction.
Some of the tasks are more minigames than puzzles, like a shell game where you must keep your eye on a marble moving swiftly beneath three cups and guess where it ends up. One pinball-type activity does require a degree of fast reflexes, and in my playthrough this minigame had an unfortunate bug that forced me to restart it from the beginning multiple times. Fortunately there is such a large and satisfying variety of puzzles that this was just a small blip for me. There are really only a few instances that have you repeating a puzzle multiple times, a weakness of many puzzle-heavy games where recycling is often used as filler.
The puzzles increase in difficulty as you progress, and there is one particular Rubik's Cube-type challenge toward the end that I found so frustratingly difficult that the pace of the game stopped entirely until I could work out the solution. With no way to bypass it completely and no final solution from the hint system, I simply had to brute force my way until I stumbled on the solution. But that was a small irritation given the beauty of some of the more grandiose puzzles, like a complicated but ultimately satisfying large-scale mirror and refracting light puzzle that is multilayered and encompasses an entire room.
This second outing provides many more locations to explore, taking you to Turin, Florence, and Milan, among other cities. And while many of the sights you encounter are quite beautiful, such as warm cobblestone streets bathed in golden torchlight, cool blue mountains towering majestically outside sand-colored stone windows, and dark libraries filled with books and gorgeous tapestries and paintings, one of the great pleasures of the game is watching the mechanical puzzles you solve evolve into ever more intricate formations. A golden elephant on a cabinet has its magnificent trunk slowly unfurl as you solve one portion of a deeply complex cabinet puzzle, for example, while a gorgeous metal staircase gracefully unwinds and spirals down after the pleasurable sound of a lock unclicking.
It’s been a while since I played the first game, but this second outing is noticeably longer and provides you with many more areas to explore than its predecessor. And here the elaborate contraptions really had my jaw dropping as they sprang to life when I solved a puzzle – such a satisfying reward for working out a difficult solution. You won’t need to have played the earlier adventure to understand what’s happening in the sequel, though if you’re hungry for even more puzzling in da Vinci’s world, you may well want to go back and start at the beginning.
All of this brainteasing goodness eventually reveals an equally intricate story involving the aforementioned secret societies. You’ll also ask yourself as you travel around Italy and through time whether you will ultimately betray da Vinci. Unfortunately, much of this plot is revealed not organically, but rather at the end of the game in an overly long cinematic that lasts several minutes, a bit of a letdown from the rewarding puzzling immediately preceding it. Adding to that anticlimax is that the game ends on a huge cliffhanger. While it’s great to anticipate more rich puzzling in the future, it doesn’t feel like a proper reward for what you’ve just worked so hard to accomplish. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the eight and a half hours I spent in the game, and can’t wait to wander around the puzzle-filled world of Renaissance Italy more. The ingenious mechanical beauties that I encountered and puzzled through were more than enough for me to recommend revisiting The House of Da Vinci 2.